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Lifestyle & Travel

How Rescuing Pets Helped One Woman Find a New ‘Leash’ on Life

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Sheri Berliner received her first camera at age 13 and knew, immediately, who her model would be: the family dog. “I photographed him in every room, outside, inside.

And I never stopped,” she laughs. “I well documented his life.”

Later in her own life, just before she turned 50, Berliner found a way to transform that love of pets and photography into a non-profit business called Friends of Petraits, a rescue organization that connects pets in needs with people who will love them. It’s a pet project that was decades in the making.  

Berliner studied photojournalism in college and went on to work a mix of journalism, marketing and public relations jobs. While at an office in 1989, she overheard colleagues talking about an abandoned litter of kittens.  Berliner had never owned a cat before, but felt like she needed to do something. She asked the women if she could meet the animals, and found the feral mom and her three babies living in the gutter of the roof of a house. Smitten, Berliner left with them, and, for the next 20 years, they were her pets. “It started me on this path,” she says.

She took photos of the cats, displaying the larger-than-life-size portraits on her walls. Friends who saw the photos encouraged her to begin a pet photography business on the side, which she did, in 1995, naming it Petraits Pet Photography.

One day, she was showing her work at an art show and a woman from a local shelter approached her. “She came up to me and said if you could make our pets look this good, we’ll have a lot more adoptions,” Berliner recalls. Berliner agreed, and, in time, developed relationships with shelters all around town as she took photos of animals in need. The photos cut straight to the heart of anyone who sees them. The animals are frequently placed in front of a colored backdrop and photographed in a way that their personality just shines through. Often, she would email a photo of one of the homeless animals to her growing list of Petraits clients. “They’re all people who love animals and might not be looking, but appreciate looking at my photos and may pass on the word if they know of someone looking for something,” she says.

Six years ago, Berliner lost her job in communications, and was looking ahead to the next chapter. “I decided to look for opportunities that would expand my horizons outside of the corporate setting,” she says. She decided to pull together her two loves — pet photography and rescuing animals — and start her own non-profit. Friends of Petraits was born.

She runs the rescue out of her two-story home, dedicating a couple of rooms to cats, or families of cats; letting a dog or two roam the house; keeping guinea pigs and rabbits in separate cages. Her outreach is as organic as it gets: she posts the animals’ stories and photos on social media (that’s how this author found her cat, Lemmy), and the detailed, adoring posts get shared by the thousands of followers. Recent posts have included Geeps and Tippy, momma and kitten, who “love climbing cat trees, using their scratching pads and posts, and have excellent litter box skills;” Miles the dog, “cat and kid-friendly black lab who recently attended a pet-blessing ceremony in Chicago and got along with everyone he met!” and Ozzie, the coonhound/pointer mix who is “an energetic boy who enjoys walks and playing ball.” 

“I only take in a handful of animals at a time,” she says. “I like to really focus on their health and training, take beautiful photos of them and then cast a really wide net to find ‘the one’ person for each pet.” Prospective human matches for the pets must fill out a lengthy four-page application. Then, they must meet the pet — and, of course, Berliner — before any adoption can take place. When pets are adopted, she takes photos of them with their new owners and posts them on social media, announcing, sweetly, that the animal “found the home of its dreams.”

Sometimes, of course, that home of the animal’s dreams is her own. One cat in particular — Atlas — is a magnificent Siamese cat who many people initially wanted to adopt, but stole Berliner’s heart.   Atlas sleeps on her pillow and acts as loving as can be. Just as she tries to find matches for all of her animals, Berliner met her own in Atlas. “He’s just all mine,” she laughs.

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